This year, like every year, Americans of all colors will choose Halloween costumes that rely on ethnic stereotypes and are racist in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. And without a doubt, partygoers in blackface and others will complain about the PC police ruining their fun by taking offense at the annual display of cultural appropriation (and worse). We've anticipated those responses by speaking to experts about why the most common excuses for the outrageous outfits don't fly, and why Halloween can't be a holiday from America's racial reality.
The thing is, a joke doesn't work without a foundation of cultural resonance, or at least a nugget of perceived truth, says Leslie Picca, associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Picca, who has studied racial joking specifically, told The Root that kidding around about racial and ethnic stereotypes is especially insidious because it shuts down future conversations about the real, unfunny issues that give life to the laughs. "If somebody says, 'Hey, I don't like it,' " she explains, "then it's put back on them, like, 'What's wrong with you?' It suggests that there's something wrong with the person who's offended."
You don't actually think that real people wear the $60 polyester getup you bought online at the last minute, do you? The "culture" costumes "tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic," Leslie Picca says. David J. Leonard, associate professor in and chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman, explains that the "Indian princess," for example, "fits with a larger reality where, for the majority of whites, there's something pleasurable and empowering in imagining the beautiful indigenous princesses in the past, and as sexual objects to be consumed." That one should be sounding less attractive already.
The important question, Washington State University's Leonard says, is, "Why are 'the other' and 'the exotic' such sources of enjoyment and pleasure" that they've become Halloween staples? "What does it tell us," he asks, "that amid all these scary things of ghosts and witches, we also have all these racialized costumes?" Plus, Leonard says, these choices "normalize whiteness" as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities. (Seriously, when is the last time you saw a person of Mexican descent in your community wearing a poncho and riding a donkey?)
Stephanie Troutman, assistant professor of women's and gender studies and African and African-American studies at Berea College in Kentucky, says that when it comes to costumes worn by white kids who want to be black celebs, for example, "You can tell they're not meant to be offensive, and they're not literal racist iconography." Still, she says, the idea that it's necessary — and OK — to use the technique indicates that a back-to-square one conversation about the history of the practice is in order. David Leonard is less understanding: "I have a hard time believing that people don’t know the history of and the reaction to blackface," he told The Root. "It's part of a history of demonization, othering, denying humanity and imagining blackness through racist caricatures."
So what if you use a little toasted-almond foundation to more closely portray the president for whom you've been knocking on doors, making phone calls and donating campaign money? If it's done out of love, admiration or respect, it's OK, right? Wrong, says Berea College's Troutman. "In the end, we have to look at the result versus the intention. The intention doesn't erase the fact that there can be a problematic end result or product."
Asian buddy loves the geisha gear? Black peers think your Lil Wayne look is hilarious? Not helping. "I think it's great that your friends don't mind, but other people do," says Stephanie Troutman. Leonard at Washington State University asks, "So, is it like a vote? If I get more people who are offended, will they take off the costume? If that's the standard for everything, we have a very troubled society … If we want a society that's governed by playground politics, that's what we'll get. But we need to have a society based on respect and an adherence to particular morals and values, not one where we decide these types of issues by referendum."
"Many young people really are invested in a belief in a postracial society … but do things that indicate a definite lack of awareness about race. They have a total disconnection between their dialogue around race and their actual performance and behavior around race," Berea's Troutman says. David Leonard looks at it in a different way. "How you were thinking about it is not my concern," he says. "You don’t have to live with the consequence of a society that, for example, criminalizes you in every context, including Halloween … You're not going to be stopped and frisked. It's bigger than you as an individual." His suggestion, if that's hard to understand: "Why don’t you take your costume off and skip your Halloween party and go read?"
"I am hesitant to tell people they can't have fun, but we have to draw a line somewhere. You may just be casting this one stone, but it will cause a ripple," Stephanie Troutman says. If you want a break from political correctness, asks Leslie Picca at the University of Dayton, "at whose expense do you want it? Who are the people having the fun? Not the people being mocked or made fun of." Citing inequalities in education, the criminal-justice system and elsewhere, she adds, "There's a sense of unawareness as far as our racial history and our contemporary racial experiences [are concerned], and it's significant how these images and stereotypes get perpetuated through the same centuries-old stereotypes that we used to justify slavery and then segregation."
This isn't like the n-word. "Just because you're a person of color doesn't give [you] a free pass in appropriating other people of color who are unlike yourself," Troutman at Berea College says. "Even when black middle-class kids appropriate a Rastafarian as sort of a joke, based on their [status] — which is not only about race but is also about culture, ethnicity and class — they can also be equally offensive." The answer for people of all colors choosing costumes, she suggests, is "to probe your own consciousness and be open to thinking about the ways this [subject] connects to larger issues of identity and inequality."